Resplendent Benarasi weaves from history and beyond

Jhini jhini bini chadariya.

kah ke tana, kah ke bharni, kaun taar se bini chadariya

ingla pingla taana bharni, sushumna tar se bini chadariya.

ashta kamal dal charkha doley, panch tatva, gun tini chadariya

saiin ko siyat mas dus lagey, thonk-thonk ke bini chadariya.

so chaadar sur nar muni odhi, odhi ke maili kini chadariya

das Kabir jatan kari odhi, jyon ki tyon dhar deeni chadariya.

The Lord Supreme has woven a very fine and delicate tapestry, free of impurities of any kind!

What refined and subtle yarn, what complex interlacing,

He has used to weave it!

Using veins and breath he threads twenty four hours on end,

His spinning wheel turns,

Weaving the tapestry from all five essential elements.

Ten months it takes the Lord to weave his tapestry,

Using the greatest of craftsmanship, care and skill.

That exquisite tapestry is worn by the celestials, by Saints, and by human beings alike.

But they all invariably have defiled it !

Your humble devotee Kabir has worn it scrupulously and meticulously,

And is returning it to you, O’Lord, unblemished and pure !

(cited Blind to Bounds)

Kaaynat - Gold the art of Zari by Swati and Sunaina

This enchanting couplet is by Kabir – the famed Indian poet, saint and weaver who belonged to Benaras. In it, he has given due credit to the yarn, the skillset of the craftsman and without doubt the resplendent Benarasi weave.

In the past cultures gold and silver have been handcrafted to sophisticated levels. Fabrics being one of them began being counted amongst the most valuable items, akin to jewellery and art. This fascination of precious materials continues till today. Taking forward a legacy, are the Kolkata based designer duo – Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan working with master weavers in Benaras to re-introduce pure Zari interpretations of classic designs in saris. Their exhibition ‘Gold-The Art of Zari’ is in collaboration with Mayank Mansingh Kaul, which presents vintage textiles sourced from private collections as well as their own contemporary work for a discerning audience.

I questioned Swati & Sunaina, both textiles designers, briefly about it.

MGD: How many people are involved in this project?

SS: We have around 40-50 looms and around the same number of weavers working with us. But approximately 15-20 of the most skilled craftsmen/weavers and a multitude of behind the scene capable artisans have toiled on this project. To make a saree is a tedious process beginning with the designer who creates a graph, and then involves a punch card specialist, dyer, warping specialist to prepare the loom, before the weaver creates magic with the yarn.

MGD: Is it an ongoing project or a limited edition one?

SS: It’s an ongoing project. We are striving to construct complex weaves as much as possible with our present community of experts in this field.

MGD: Are there different kinds of weaving techniques? Name the ones you have incorporated in ‘Gold- the art of Zari’.

SS: There were plenty of weaving techniques that Benaras employed. But over the years, some have become extinct simply because they were too complex and had fewer takers to pay the due. So, these are the ones we are looking to revive.

One of them is “Rangkaat” which definitely garners a mention. It’s a unique technique where the weavers introduce new colour in the weft almost as many as ten times while he weaves one line or a strand. This is extremely time consuming and needs a certain skillset and lots of patience. As little as 2mm is woven in a day. One should come to see the pieces of this much-revered technique on display.

Another one in which 10-12 colours are used is ‘Dampach’ which is also on display. Their uniqueness is in the 12″ butas woven throughout the saree employing as many as three times the normal weaving capacity of a jacquard machine.

MGD: What is your contribution to this rich tradition? 

SS: We have experimented with pure silk and fine cotton yarn (100 count single ply hand spun by women at home as it’s too delicate to be machine spun and 200 count double ply.) Have also successfully combined the two to create a beautiful sheer fabric that is seen in the Shikargaha , Oorjaa and Amrutha, Rangkaat and Hukum sarees.

Oorjaa Rangkaat by Swati & Sunaina


Shikargaha heirloom weave by Swati & Sunaina showcasing at Gold the art of zari exhibition at The Bikaner House New Delhi in September


Adding value as the curator of the show is Mayank Mansingh Kaul, who further sheds light on this work.

MGD: Which classic designs re-introduced by them would you like to talk about?

MSK: The Shikargaha and some classic floral jaals and butas have been revisited. But the rarer are classics from the early 20th century such as ‘Litchi Buta’ and ‘RangKaat’, nowadays. The Litchi Buta – as the name suggests, uses the motif of a Litchi – an exotic fruit brought from the Orient at that time. It became one of the foreign-inspired themes and design references in the Benaras industry of the late 19th to the mid 20th century. Without doubt as mentioned earlier by Swati & Sunaina, ‘RangKaat’ is an exceptional example classic design because of the difficulty it involves in making it, which eventually led to its rarity in the present day and age. It uses multi-coloured warp and weft which if literally translated from Hindi to English  means ‘cutting of colour’.

Litchi Buta

Litchi Buta



MGD: Is there a specialized technique of making zari. Kindly elaborate.

MSK: Zari refers to metallic yarns used in Indian textiles. Traditionally, they were made of pure metals such as gold and silver, but since the 1960s have undergone major transformations when copper started being used as a base or in the mass segment category the synthetics. The work of Swati & Sunaina uses 98.5% silver, which is gold-plated and the purest metallic yarn being used in the world today. What is incredible also, is that there is only one such atelier in the world, making the purest form of Zari, which is in Benaras.

The process of making it, involves many stages. It begins with melting a chunk of pure silver, and then refining through several junctures of drawing and spinning. To transform solid silver into yarn as fine as a single hair, is a specialised art of in itself!

MGD: What have you brought to the fore for the contemporary audience through this exhibition?

MSK: I think for most people, the presence or absence of Zari defines a textile. The presence of Zari becomes an end in itself and contemporary audiences have not been exposed to the various ways in which Zari can be creatively used. For instance, if you combine silver Zari with white silk, one can achieve a pearl-like finish for the fabric. If gold Zari is woven with thick silks then it can transform the material quality of fabric similar to sheets of metal. When combined with very fine silk like tissue, then it mimics the appearance of light reflecting on water. My attempt has been to bring such perspectives to light – as a form of art.

Further, what is amazing is that in India the use of zari is both historical and contemporary. I have emphasized that our contemporary practices showcase the best skills and craftsmanship as valued in the historical textiles.

MGD: Being a textile and fashion designer tell us the history of zari?

It is impossible to narrate the entire history of zari briefly, so am sharing few facts.

The word ‘Zari’ is believed to have been derived from the Persian word ‘Zar’ which means gold. There are references of cloth made of gold in the hymns of ‘Rigveda’ which is more than 3000 years old. Later metallic yarns were brought into prominence 17th century onwards, attributed to the Mughal period in the subcontinent. There is very little research done with a focus on this subject with historical relevance, but another interesting aspect is that apparently this art went from India to Lyon, a major French brocading centre in the past.

Please note that while the exhibition brings up facets of its history, our focus is on the art of Zari making – the traditional and the contemporary context is brought alive exquisitely by ladies’.

MGD: What prompted you to take on this project?

MSK: I have always been fascinated by the ethereal allure of gold and the symbolisms associated with it – whether of power or sacred. They approached me to do a narrative on Zari which has become their forte over the years. Their commitment to documenting and researching the subject as much as the work thoroughly impressed me, as this quality isn’t seen in Benaras for a while now.

Last but not the least, as a blogger of handcrafted luxuries of the Indian subcontinent, would like to highlight their gumption of authenticity through a document which offers details of a saree, like the name of the weaver who has woven it, the techniques and yarns used, sharing a heritage of master-artisanship, while selling it. So, with just two more days of the showing, this one is a must-watch for any textile enthusiast -‘Gold- The Art of Zari’ – till 27th September, from 10:30am-6:30pm, at Bikaner House, New Delhi.

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